David Hume, ‘The Problem of Induction’ and the Workingman’s Sausage

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David Hume is credited with developing induction. He argued that our inductive generalisations rest on the assumption that unobserved cases will follow the patterns that we discovered in observed cases but that one cannot make induction deductively certain. We cannot know that nature is uniform.

Hume distinguished between relations of ideas and matters of fact. He regarded deductive reasoning as demonstrative (involving certainty, established through relations of ideas) and inductive reasoning as probable (involving matters of fact, known by experience).

Hume denied the objective character of causality, arguing that there is no necessary relationship between cause and effect.

He insisted that philosophy cannot go beyond experience and that there is no solution to the ‘problem of induction’ which he set as a syllogism. He asked how we can move from a first premise that all observed A’s have been B to the conclusion that all A’s without restriction have been, are, and will be B.

He thought it can be addressed from two perspectives – that of redundancy (‘All A’s have been observed’), which is disqualified because it cannot be an argument from experience, and that of ‘the principle of the uniformity of nature’.

He also ruled this out because it could only be known to be true by a question-begging appeal to arguments of the very kind here in question (Nature has always been uniform. How does one know? Because it has always been uniform.). Further, such a premise would have to imply that all the A’s experienced by anyone constitute in all respects a perfectly representative sample of A’s.

Hume’s ‘moral’ conclusion was that argument from experience must be without rational foundation.

‘He seems nevertheless to have felt few scruples over the apparent inconsistency of going on to insist, first, that such argument is grounded in the deepest instincts of our nature, and, second, that the rational man everywhere proportions his belief to the evidence – evidence which in practice crucially includes that outcome of procedures alleged earlier to be without rational foundation…Argument from experience should be thought of not as an irreparably fallacious attempt to deduce conclusions necessarily wider than available premises can contain, but rather as a matter of following a tentative and self-correcting rule, a rule that is part of the very paradigm of inquiring rationality – that one would think that other A’s have been and will be the same, until and unless a particular reason is discovered to revise these expectations.’1

Lenin wrote that the sophism of idealist philosophy is that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a barrier between the two, not an image of the external phenomenon, but the sole entity.2

Whence arises the relations of ideas in deduction – from other ideas, or from within a form of matter which is utterly part of the world?

The (theoretically) absolute truth in nature is approached (the deepening of truth, inseparable from change and uncertainty) through a compound of relative truths by a process of sensory experience, brain processing of that experience and the testing of the resulting ideas in practice.

And this debate, which ultimately traces to that concerning the precedence of matter (objective reality) or consciousness as thought over the other, is directly related to ideology.

‘The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.

The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble…In order to know an object, man must first verify whether his senses deceive him or not…The chemists have gone deeper – they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves. The God of the Christians, if he existed and if he had created the world, could do no more.’3

Notes

1. In A. Flew, Ed.,  A  Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Pan, 1984, 172

2. V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress, Moscow 1977, 38

3. Ibid., 185-186; Paul Lafargue, “Le matérialisme de Marx et l’idéalisme de Kant”, Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900.

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